Sean Doherty ©

While many bee enthusiasts avow that honeybees lead a strange and secretive life within their hives, beekeepers themselves have a tendency to be quite strange to say the least; but it’s an oddity that they’re all proud of. Beekeeping is both sought after by businessmen commercially, as well as by hobbyists, who are known as backyard beekeepers. Beekeeping isn’t particular to any ethnicity, gender, or age, but knows an immense variety of membership. From the perspective of an average beekeeper named Turlough, he responds to The Independent article on beekeeping,

For generations, beekeeping has been one of the most genteel of pastimes – a world of flower meadows, village fêtes and white-veiled enthusiasts pottering around, puffing smoke into hives.[1]

“What a load of twaddle. As my late uncle used to say: beekeeping is all about sex, violence and daylight robbery.”[2] Turlough’s uncle was a very sensible man. Each of the three descriptions of beekeeping is rooted in fact. Daylight robbery implies the stealing of honey and other goods, the violence deals with the time of year in northern climates that the female worker bees tear off the wings, bite, and drive off the males in the hive before winter, the sex, is just that, the female queen flies high into the air, and the males mate with her in the air, in doing so further violence is committed as the queen rips out the genitalia of the male bee, having it plummet to the ground to its death, absorbing the sperm into its body allowing it for the production of millions of bees.

Many cultures from across the span of time have indulged in keeping an apiary. According to Thaindian News[3], the earliest beekeeping operation to ever be archeologically uncovered was in Tel Rehov located in northern Israel which was revealed remnants of human-made beehives that supported as many as 200 hives; this find was nearly an astounding 3,000 years old. This finding dates back to the biblical accounts of King David and King Solomon. It also notes that “the earliest known depiction of beekeeping appears on a carving from an Egyptian temple[4] that dates to circa 4,500 years ago.’

Local beekeepers supply their area with fresh honey and become intimate with their customers knowing which types of honey to set aside for whom. Many apiarists like Norman Charpentier of Leominster, MA are backyard beekeepers. I had the unique opportunity to interview him for this paper. They usually have no more then three to five hives, which produce a surplus of anywhere between eighty to a hundred pounds of honey. This is only working on a very low scale production. Many individuals of this group have learned the trade of keeping bees from an older relative. Norman learned it from his great uncle at the age of thirteen, while his father learned along side him. Community based beekeepers have a wide variety of options that they can sell. Everything in a beehive is useable, from honey to wax.

The most famous byproduct of keeping bees is the honey. The things that usually aren’t obvious are the other products associated with having an apiary are beeswax, pollen, and propolis. The first product that bees produce in abundance is beeswax, which can be made into candles. The second item is pollen. Norman told me that some customers request the bees to be set up in their yard; the bees’ hive is then fitted with a pollen grain collector. As the thousands of bees enter the hive, they have to hyper extend and half the time their pollen baskets drop the pollen into the grate that collects it. The customers then eat the pollen and their allergies are no more. The third product is propolis. This is a mixture of tree saps. It has many uses in the hive, as well as many uses in the medical/dentistry field. Propolis, although is time consuming to collect the minimum pound of it, the pay off is eighty dollars a pound.

Going to see the bees is always an interesting experience.

“You always get stung several times, it just comes with the territory,” Norman said as we suited up. The netting draped around my face, and tucked into my collar. Norman said that the first place the bees will try and sting if agitated are the face and neck. Somehow I wasn’t sure about a simple net blocking the way to my face. His son watched from the back porch.

“Don’t worry!” he said with a grin, “the only thing you have to really watch out for is when the bee gets inside with you and can’t find her way out!” That sounds reassuring.

“Why are beekeepers outfits white?”

“They are white to distinguish us from the would be attackers of beehives, which are normally brown and furry,” Norman said, “although there aren’t many bears around here.”

As we neared the hives I began to become nervous. My only thoughts were on the stinging. Apparently this suit wasn’t full proof against bees, any part that was pulled taunt they could sting through.

“If you get stung, don’t pull it out, brush it away. The bee toxins only are fully released when you pinch at the poison sac that is attached with the stinger.”

The bees began to hum as we opened the hives. Norman sprayed a mixture of burlap and pinecones.

“The bees normally can communicate with the use of pheromones and can be alert to an attacker in seconds. The smoke calms them and blocks the pheromones from spreading through the hive, or if we slip and kill a few worker bees, that wont be noticed,” he said as he slowly lifted out a honey super.

This is what we put in to extract the honey. When this is filled up, we replace it with another. We keep a couple extras so we can rotate.

As I stood surrounded by bees, I realized that I too wanted to become part of the world that is beekeeping.

Norman, told me that beekeepers, as a group are generally a strange bunch; as he recounts when his bees stung his wife and she was rushed to the hospital. The police asked him if he had taken out a hefty insurance policy on her, as she is deathly allergic to the sting of honeybees! Of course he hadn’t but needless to say his wife is extremely cautious of his hobby. As for his children, they have been brought up to respect the bees, with the mantra, “if you leave them alone they will leave you alone”. They played with the drones, the males, who have no stinger, getting them to race back and forth across the carpet. His wife tells me how their son at age five sat and let bees that were swarming[5] completely cover his face and neck. Many people who do not understand bees or their nature would rather die then to have their face plastered by a couple thousand of the vivacious females. Swarming is something that happens when bees either lose their queen[6], or it becomes too crowded within the hive.

“Beekeeping was more fun when there wasn’t the added steps of taking chemical strips to fight various diseases such as varroa mites. Back when I first started, there was none of that and it was pretty laid back,” says Norman. This is the general consensus between beekeepers, that the added measures and checks to insure that their bees are healthy has been a proverbial ‘stinger’ in beekeepers’ side.

The benefits of beekeeping are not only fiscal, but nutritional as well. New beekeepers have set up in the White House. They have installed a new beehive into the garden. The current first lady, Michelle Obama wanted her children to eat healthier, and learn about the benefits of honey over sugar are far from infinitesimal. The new presidential apiary was not only installed for its benefits, but also for bee awareness. Beekeepers around the country are hoping that with the rising awarness of beekeeping, the government will stop spraying chemicals that have been suspect to CCD

CCD also known as Colony Collapse Disorder has decimated countless numbers of beehives. This frightening disease has left many beekeepers out of business. Those hit hardest are those who move their vast hives to California for almonds, Florida for melons, and Pennsylvania for apples and Maine for pollination. With the shifting of hives and the bees being exposed to chemicals that have tested hazardous towards pollinators, the safety of many of the worlds hives have been severely compromised. The strange disease causes bees to dissapear from their hives, so instead of having plenty of dead bees in the hives which is characteristic of other diseases, the bees are nowhere to be found.

Norman believed that many local beekeepers, himself included, have not had to deal with hit CCD first hand because of the nature of their production and source of pollen.

It’s amazing that many people wear the masks of an average everyday person, but come bee season they put on a different mask, one with fine netting of course. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United States alone produced roughly 70,000 metric tons of the golden treat, and consumed a whopping 159,000 metric tons of it. America has an insatiable appetite for honey, consuming over twice as much as it makes domestically. Beekeepers are a very important group and not many people realize their significance to their food stores. For example, if you were to sit down for breakfast and have mixed nuts and granola, toast with jam, cranberry juice, coffee with milk, eggs and a lovely fruit salad, you would be sorely disappointed to look at your plate without the help of bees’ pollination. The same breakfast with out the help of pollinators would consist of black coffee, toast with butter, eggs and granola. With a 3/4th of crops in your diet requiring pollination, beekeepers are an extraordinary group. They don’t only provide honey and the like, but provide you with fruits and veggies. It is by no mistake that in the Bible, the Jews were going the land of milk and honey. As you cannot have one with out the other, for you see, alfalfa the feed that cows that produce milk eat needs bees to pollinate it. To put it simply, life without beekeepers would be extremely dour.

Being a beekeeper is many things, a hobby, a business, even a way of life. But what it will always remain as a source of interest for humanity. It can be anywhere from a eight year old boy in a monastery, to the sixty-five year old grandmother in Albania, nothing will change no matter what the human element is added to the equation. The secret life of bees is one thing, but the odd life of the innumerable beekeepers is something that is to be found out by entering into their world; suited up and ready for the inevitable sting.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/a-sting-in-the-tale-secret-deal-splits-countrys-top-beekeepers-489918.html

[2] http://turlough.blogspot.com/2005/05/journalist-gets-beekeeping-stereotype.html

[3] ANI, “Oldest known archaeological example of beekeeping discovered in Israel.” Thaindian News. 01 SEP 2008. Thaindian News. 28 Apr 2009 <http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/india-news/oldest-known-archaeological-example-of-beekeeping-discovered-in-israel_10091110.html&gt;.

[4] Egypt sites identifies not as a carving from an Egyptian Temple, but from the Tomb of Pabasa near Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri.

[5] Bees swarm for a variety of reasons, generally, the drone supers are filled and the bees feel cramped, so the queen lays a couple eggs and the workers feed them royal jelly to make them into queens, the first queen out kills the others and takes over, the old queen takes half the hive to form a new hive elsewhere.

[6] Bees realize that their queen is gone in a matter of an hour when her pheromone scent disappears. They immediately find 10 developing bees that are no more then 3 weeks old and feed them ‘royal jelly’ which helps them develop their reproductive organs.